| ||Friday, November 5|
Special to ESPN.com
|For such a young league, Conference USA may be as good as any in the country this year. The reason for the conference's improved stature lies with the athleticism and quality at the top, with Cincinnati, DePaul and -- surprise -- Louisville.
Cincinnati remains the conference favorite, and DePaul, behind sophomore sensation Quentin Richardson, is still on the way up. But I believe Denny Crum's Cardinals are going to come back big this year. They have a couple of Nigerian players, Muhamed Lasege and Benjamin Eze Ndubuisi, who should really help them.
Another team I like to make an impression is South Florida. With the talent Seth Greenberg has recruited, the Bulls have a chance to be much better than their .500 record of a year ago and make a run for the NCAA Tournament.
Conference USA may be a year away from elite status in the country. I thought the Big Ten was the best conference in the country last year, followed by the ACC and SEC. But the conference is only a notch below, from top to bottom. And the top three teams can play with anyone.
Gee Gervin, senior, G, Houston: 20.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg
Pete Mickael, senior, F, Cincinnati: 14.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg
B.B. Waldon, sophomore, F, South Florida: 16.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg
Lance Williams, sophomore, C, DePaul: 13.9 ppg, 7.8 rpg
Quentin Richardson, sophomore, G/F, DePaul: 18.9 ppg, 10.5 rpg Player of the year: Quentin Richardson
Rarely do you see a 6-foot-6 player with the maturity Richardson showed as a freshman last season. He was so outstanding -- he can shoot, rebound, defend. He did everything for DePaul. How often does a conference make a freshman its Player of the Year? He deserved every bit of it. He defends hard on the other end, which really impressed me. All-newcomer team
DerMarr Johnson, freshman, G, Cincinnati
Kenny Satterfield, freshman, G, Cincinnati
George Williams, freshman, F, Houston
Mark Kimbrough, junior, F, Alabama-Birmingham
Reece Gaines, freshman, G, Louisville Newcomer of the year: DerMarr Johnson
Johnson is my pick as the top newcomer. He is strong off the glass. Everything I have read about him is that he plays like older than his years would suggest. He runs the floor, is strong off the glass, and handles well for a player with good size. Best backcourt: UNC Charlotte
Bobby Lutz returns a strong backcourt led by Diego Guevara, a steady point guard and the team's top scorer, and Jobey Thomas, the conference's best 3-point shooter. The return of Dalonte Hill from knee surgery would give Lutz the option of going with a solid three-guard set. Best frontcourt: Cincinnati
The Bearcats are loaded up front, especially with Kenyon Martin, the league's all-time leading shot blocker; and Pete Mickael, one of the most underrated players in the country. They also have Ryan Fletcher and Jermaine Tate, the Ohio State transfer who started last year.
Team on the rise: DePaul
The Blue Demons are poised to take the next step. After Joey Meyer left, the program was in a state of doldroms. Pat Kennedy had a decent year last year, winning 18 games and getting to the NIT. But the Blue Demons, with all their young talent, will make the jump this year to the NCAAs. Team on the fall: Tulane
The Green Wave were a solid club in the early '90s when they made the NCAA Tournament in three out of four years. But they went the other way because they haven't been able to recruit their state and some of their key players have left, including leading scroer Byron Mouton over the summer. Unsung player: Tony Williams, Louisville
Williams' contributions don't show up on the scorer's sheet. He is a good defender and rebounder, and can score, averaging 12 points a game last year. Toughest road game: Cincinnati
The Bearcats' crowd at the Shoemaker Center is tough on the opposition. Bob Huggins wanted to make it one of the toughest places to play in the country, and he succeeded. The seats come down to the edge on both sides. The fans are right in back of the bench.
Dick Vitale previews Conference USA.
RealVideo: | 28.8